The Indian society is evolving; and ‘change is supposed to be the only constant’ in the order of the universe. Change brings fresh air into life. What remains still is stagnant and lifeless. One may wonder why in India do women face insurmountable social challenges. A land, which supposedly gave the world the concepts of Purusha-Prakriti or Shiva-Shakti, has today brought upon itself utter shame and disgrace by the manner it treats its women.
An order by the Supreme Court last Monday, 17 Feb 2020, to grant permanent commission (PC) to all women officers in the Army is in tune with the changing times. The court correctly noted that any bar on allotting command posts to women is ‘irrational’ and ruled that the terms of all such appointments shall be the same as prescribed for males. It may surprise many to learn that the court also observed that the Army’s counsel sought to ‘mislead’ it many times during the process of the matter.
As the Apex Court rightly noted, the problem here is with the mindset. It perpetuates gender stereotypes. Neither physiological limitations nor social norms should come in the way of ensuring gender equality is how the court put it. These terms were profusely used by the Union Government’s counsel. While the government has had doubts about upgrading the role of women in the Army, it had granted PCs to women officers selectively since last year and started an online recruitment of women as combat soldiers since April last. The overall prejudice against women officers, translating into a denial of opportunities to them, however, continued. Those who work sincerely expect rewards. When this is denied on the basis of gender or other considerations, it hurts individual egos and reduces the potential for performance. A prominent sector like military services can ill afford such scenarios. Keeping the morale high should be a matter of first priority. Permanent Commission implies an officer, gender notwithstanding, shall be able to remain in service till the age of retirement. That obviously means that any officer, female or male, who serves till 60 years of age and is capable and efficient in her or his work will be assured of promotions. In the Army, promotions will eventually take an officer through various stages including that of a commander. It was this role that the male mindset has been unable to accept from a female officer.
A prejudiced mindset, with no co-relation to the realities on the ground, is a curse across the social spectrum. Here in India, changes in attitudes are coming about in a hesitant manner. Several fields where women were not present have been opened up in recent years – and that includes fields where physical exertion is required as well. Women have acquitted themselves well in fields of administration, health care, engineering, science and of late in aviation as well. History records the name of Khawlah bint-al Azwar being among the greatest women military leaders in history – and she lived at the time of Prophet Muhammad. Last year, an all-female crew of pilots flew a set of US fighter jets in a formation; elsewhere female marines are in combat mode. Year 2016 saw the induction of three women fighter pilots into the Indian Air Force, marking a change in history. Their number is progressively rising. India today has a substantial number of female loco pilots running trains – something that too was unimaginable until a few years ago. And as for women in combat command duties, it is seen in Israel, China, the US, UK and many other countries who have taken in women in their forces for long. Israeli female commandos have many achievements to their credit which have become folklore now.
Gender equality is a cause that requires more attention and emphasis as the change in mindset is slow. This must encompass all fields – but with a rider that merit should be the first and foremost guiding factor for any selection as clearly pointed out by the Supreme Court in its judgement. In other words, if a job requires a particular prowess, a process of reservation need not be resorted to in such situations to simply ensure gender equality. Merit being equal, both genders must be placed on an equal footing. This must be so not just with military appointments but also with selections in all other fields of human endeavour. The growth of a society is dependent on the merit of the individuals and strength of the hands that shape it. However, no economic or social success can be achieved without bringing about true gender equality.
The modes of military warfare have changed over the years. Today, it is not the physical might that matters anymore. Wars are fought in the skies, oceans and in rooms in distant lands that have computer operators controlling drones and warheads flying thousands of miles away. But nations still cannot do without land Armies. A combined strength is what works. So far, noticeable presence of women in Indian military was evident in fields like medical services, signals, mechanical engineering and even in para military forces. Combat fields are now open for them. More power to our girls!